If there is no solution to the problem then don’t waste time worrying about it. If there is a solution to the problem then don’t waste time worrying about it.
A young captain was in command of an impressive warship for the first time. One night the sea was churning, and the ship was shrouded in heavy fog. The captain received a signal from the bridge: a strange light was approaching directly, at high speed. The fearless captain didn’t have to think for more than a second; he gave the order to transmit a message. “You’re on a collision course. Change your course 20 degrees to the south immediately.” The reply made the captain furious. He was given a counter-order. “Change your course 20 degrees to the north immediately.” A few messages went back and forth in this fashion, with the captain demanding that the other party change its course, and the counter-command coming back the same every time. Finally, in desperation, the captain signaled: “I warn you, this is a battleship, we will shoot you.” The answer was quick: “I warn you, this is a lighthouse!”
One of the foundational insights of flip thinking is that there are some situations and problems that you simply have to accept. That’s what this chapter’s about. You might find this the odd chapter out in the book; after all, isn’t flip thinking about change? Why would we spend time on things that we can’t influence? Unfortunately, in practice we invest a great deal of energy in trying to change things that can’t be changed. Like Don Quixote, we often try to make reality suit our wishes. And as long as we try to do that, as long as we focus our efforts on changing the unchangeable, we leave the things that we actually could change just as they are. Therefore, paradoxically, resistance often maintains the status quo, while acceptance itself can lead to change. In the words of provocative psychologist Jeffrey Wijnberg, “Acceptance is the highest form of change.”
So, let’s start at the beginning: acceptance. What’s the first thing you think of when it comes to things that you can’t change? Maybe the weather. When it’s raining, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Or perhaps death. It’s inevitable. We just have to accept it. We’re all born and we all die. It’s as simple as that. What about our moods? Can we change them? Can we say to ourselves “be happy” and just make ourselves happy? The answer is obviously yes and no. We can consciously influence our moods, but not completely control them. What about a relationship, or a company’s culture? How do we know what we can change and what we can’t?
As first laid out by the psychotherapist David Richo in his book The Five Things We Cannot Change, when we consider the world around us (including ourselves), five aspects of life are unchangeable. To persist in trying to change these features of reality is a waste of effort, like a dog running up and down a beach barking at the waves.
1. Things change, and come to an end
Kicking in open door number one (and it’s completely true): whatever you experience, it will at some time cease to exist. This includes everything that’s precious to us; our relationships, our partners and children, our extended families, our work, our health, everything changes and comes to an end. A fact that is difficult to accept. The tragedy is that resistance is futile, but nonetheless we so desperately want to hold on to these things. Clinging to what once was is understandable, but the fact is that we have no other option than to let go. What’s past is past and will never return. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, “Nothing has happened in the past; it happened in the Now.”
Incidentally, this observation also applies to the future. As Eckhart Tolle again pointed out, nothing happens in the future either. All happenings happen “in the Now.” Flip thinking begins with the acceptance of the constant changeability of the here and now. Believing that we can prevent change, and loss, is building an illusion founded on quicksand.
Is that a hopeless conclusion? Perhaps it is, at first glance. But when you take a second look, you can see that it is actually an extremely positive observation. The continually changing “here and now” offers a never-ending source of inspiration. We can only unlock this inspiration when we let go of the illusion of control. Accepting the impermanence of life is not limiting; it is liberating.
2. Things don’t always go according to plan
Another annoying truth we’ve all run up against. Maybe you’ve rented a great vacation house, but it turned out to be double-booked. Or your room looked out on a courtyard instead of the sea. And you’ve spent a year saving up for this vacation. Grrrr . . .
We tend to buy into an illusion of control over our lives, in part because this illusion is often supported. You flip a switch, and a light turns on. You order something online, and it’s delivered on time. Quite a few things in life work in this almost miraculous way—according to plan, as I experienced as a child. My father was a market trader. Every day he had a cup of coffee in a café, and one day the bill he received was unusually high. In addition to his coffee, he was charged for six lemonades. He didn’t drink lemonade, but I loved it, and I was with him that day. How had I managed to order six glasses without asking him for them? I had noted that to order coffee, my father put his hand up and waved his finger as if writing on his tab, saying his name, “Gunster.” I had gone to sit at another table while my father was absorbed in reading his paper, and in exactly the same way I gestured, called out “lemonade” and “Gunster” and lo and behold, I was brought a glass of lemonade six times. My world was running according to plan. For this one time.
We get married, make sacred vows, and then get divorced. Not according to plan. We have children, hope that they are happy and healthy, bring them up properly, but then we get into an argument with them, and we become estranged. Not how we planned it. We start a business, but it goes bankrupt. An infinite number of pursuits in life don’t go according to plan. And here, too, letting go is the key. Letting go of the idea that things will go according to plan, that our lives should be so manageable. “You just have to want it enough.” “You’ve got to toughen up and persevere.” We try to lift each other’s spirits this way, and sometimes this advice is good. But often, it’s not. Sometimes it’s best not to persevere, but to let go.
Especially when it comes to intimate relationships, we tend to hold firm to notions of how the other person “should be” and we try to change our partners. Psychologist John Gottman, a leading specialist on relationships, found that as much as a shocking 69 percent of the conflicts in relationships are over things that can’t be changed. One key to a successful marriage, he writes, is that both partners realize that there are quite a few things they can’t change about the other. They have decided to accept each other “with all their faults.”
3. Life is not always fair
Yep, this is a tough one. Nothing’s fair. Why were you laid off and not your colleague? Why do you feel unattractive and not that smart, while your sister is intelligent, incredibly attractive, and also has an irritatingly (to you) cheerful personality? How is it that someone who smokes lives to almost 100 while his neighbor, who always lived a healthy lifestyle, went to the gym three times a week and ate his vegetables, came down with an unknown virus while on vacation and passed away at the age of 36? That’s hardly fair. Yet a fight against the unfairness of life is often a losing battle.
The pursuit of justice is noble; there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as it’s actually possible to have an impact. And that’s precisely where the problem lies. If we’re unable to exert an influence on our environment, then the belief in a just world quickly becomes a hindrance. An obstacle. In fact, this “just-world hypothesis” is such an obstructive belief that the social psychologist Melvin Lerner considers it one of our most significant attribution errors. We tend to believe—more or less consciously—that “what goes around comes around.” “People get what they deserve.” Given that most of us believe ourselves to be reasonable, civilized, and capable, we think we should be less likely to meet with misfortune. The idea that we may just have bad luck is deeply disturbing. We prefer to maintain the illusion that we hold our fate in our hands.
This is part of the appeal of fairy tales. The good guys always win. Justice prevails. Little Red Riding Hood beats the Big Bad Wolf, Snow White is kissed awake (at least in the Disney version), and Hansel and Gretel escape from the wicked witch. Our religions, too, offer stories that help maintain the illusion of fairness. If you do the right thing, you’ll go to heaven. Your good acts will be rewarded for eternity.
But fate can torment us. Suddenly. Cruelly. Viciously. Unpredictably. The Dutch writer Harry Mulisch used imagery of a swarm of mosquitoes to describe the randomness of life. We humans are like mosquitoes flying around in a group, with not a care in the world, when suddenly a bird flies through the swarm and snaps up mosquitoes left and right. How is that fair?!